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Two Days in the Life of President John F. Kennedy

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Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours That Made History by Andrew Cohen (McClelland & Stewart, 2014), 404 pages.

 To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey Sachs (Random House, 2013), 249 pages.

November 22, 2013, marked the passage of fifty years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The milestone garnered a lot of media attention and also sparked something of a boom in books about Kennedy. Almost all of them were celebratory of his life and his presidency, but some of them also attempted to draw lessons from his leadership and time in office that could be applied to today.

Historians now know more about the Kennedy years than they have ever before, thanks to the declassification of records following the Oliver Stone movieJFK, which sparked a public campaign to release records pertaining to and surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Congress formed the Assassination Records Review Board as a result. Although some records examined by the board are still due to be released in 2017, the board declassified more than four million pages of records. Many of them had to do with Kennedy’s foreign policies.

In July 1962, Kennedy set up a secret tape-recording system and began to record 260 hours of meetings and phone calls. The Kennedy library released those tapes, and the Miller Center at the University of Virginia has transcribed them up to the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of that year and published them.

These fly-on-the-wall recordings are a great source that helps us better understand those particular months and the decision-making process of Kennedy and his advisors during the missile crisis. However, the following months have yet to be transcribed for the public, so there will be more material for people to learn from in the future.

All of this new information and the passage of time itself have enriched the historian’s understanding of Kennedy. Interpretations of those years have changed as a result. In the past, some have portrayed Kennedy as a reckless Cold Warrior. The disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion, in which 1,500 CIA-backed Cuban exiles invaded the island of Cuba, only to find themselves so helplessly outnumbered that they surrendered in two days, seems to back up that impression. And so does the dangerous nuclear brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. And there has been an endless debate on what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam if he had lived. But the new materials of recent years have generated works that give a more nuanced look at what was really going on. Kennedy can now be seen as more restrained than reckless, because we now know that he turned down calls for armed intervention in Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba over and over again throughout his presidency.

One common thread in writings about the Kennedy administration is that the president made a mistake in approving the failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and afterwards never again would he blindly listen to his foreign-policy advisors. Another theme is that the Cuban Missile Crisis marked a turning point in his administration that led to a thaw in the Cold War and a move towards peace on the part of the president of the United States and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev.

Two speeches

Two recent books, Two Days in June, by journalist Andrew Cohen, and To Move the World, by economist Jeffrey Sachs, take up this theme of peace. Cohen’s book focuses on two speeches that Kennedy gave on consecutive days, which Cohen sees as turning points in American history. He sees them as “tipping points” in which the president made a “pivot” and became a true leader.

The first speech is a famous commencement address that Kennedy delivered at American University on June 10, 2015. In that address, which came almost eight months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy broke from the harsh rhetoric used by leaders of both the Soviet Union and the United States at various times during the Cold War.

This speech has taken the name “the peace speech,” but Kennedy titled it “A Strategy of Peace.” A desire for a thaw in the Cold War was not new. Dwight Eisenhower had hoped for one towards the end of his presidency and had high hopes that he might be able to make some deal to limit the nuclear arms race with Khrushchev, only to see his hopes dashed by the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union. John Kennedy also spoke of a willingness to negotiate with the Soviets in his inaugural address.

“But he also knew,” writes Cohen, “in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis, that it was now time to try a new approach to peace. The way to do that was not to demonize the Russians — the code of the Cold War — but to humanize them.”

Instead of speaking of the Soviet Union as an evil enemy that should never even be talked with, Kennedy said that it could be possible to make agreements with it if such deals were in the best interests of both parties. But to do so would mean that Americans would have to revisit their own attitudes towards the Soviets and be willing to “live together in mutual tolerance.”

He also asked, “What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children.…”

Such words seem out of place today, when the American military talks of maintaining “full spectrum dominance” and some political leaders of recent years in both parties have spoken of the virtues of empire. Kennedy used this address to work towards a treaty that banned the further testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere and declared that the United States would no longer engage in any more airborne atomic tests as long as the Soviets did not. And the move worked. Within a few months the two sides signed an agreement and the Senate ratified it.

Kennedy saw that as just one step towards peace in the Cold War. He gave an address at the United Nations offering to explore a joint space program with the Soviet Union to the moon. But the moves towards peace on both sides came to an end with his assassination and the removal of Khrushchev from power almost one year later.

Cohen also focuses on a televised address to the nation that Kennedy gave the very next day concerning civil rights and racial segregation. With the bulk of Democrats in the Senate and Congress coming from the South, the Kennedy administration tried to avoid the issue of civil rights. But events forced it to take a stand and the president did so with this address that did something no president had done up to that time: denounce racial segregation as a moral wrong.

“It was the moment that a president pivoted. Kennedy was moving from a detachment to engagement, from being a transaction president — as political scientists would classify leadership of a certain type a half-century later — to a transformative one,” writes Cohen. Kennedy’s address would lead to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Andrew Cohen’s book works as a micro study of those two very important days in the history of the Kennedy administration. It documents to the best that it can all of his movements during those 48 hours. As you read the book you see whom he met with and whom he talked with, and even see him escape from the White House for a quick dinner party with some friends. It makes for an entertaining read that makes history come alive.

However, there is always a danger in any work of history that focuses on one event to magnify its importance or to fail to put it in context. Luckily both of these events are as important as Cohen says they are, but there is still much to be learned.

Departing from the national-security state

 Jeffrey Sachs’s book, To Move The World, also focuses on Kennedy’s American University address and what he calls “JFK’s quest for peace” with the Soviet Union in the last few months of his presidency. Instead of focusing on Kennedy’s daily activities, Sachs focuses on several of his speeches that he gave on this topic.

Sachs is an economist who has written books titled the End of Poverty and Common Wealth and who seeks global government cooperation to create “inclusive and environmentally sustainable growth.” He views the Cold War confrontation as the issue of that time and the impact of corporate globalization as the issue of our time. He uses the examples of Kennedy’s speeches and leadership as a model for how someone of today could bring those issues to the world stage.

Sachs also makes note of Kennedy’s speech on civil rights that followed his address at American University and writes that “in the course of these two days, with these two speeches Kennedy crossed the threshold from charming, skilled politician to moral leader.” However, Sachs notes that Kennedy’s address at American University was not simply an idealistic hope for peace, because in it Kennedy set out a practical vision of how to move the world towards peace by taking cooperative steps that would improve relations with the Soviet Union.

“By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it,” said Kennedy.

“Here, in one sentence,” Sachs argues, “is the art of great leadership. Define a goal clearly. Explain how it can be achieved in manageable steps. Help others share the goal — in part through great oratory. Their hopes will move them ‘irresistibly’ toward the goal.”

Both Sachs and Cohen show that this speech by Kennedy was unusual. Most presidential foreign-policy speeches are passed around various departments of the national-security state in order to get feedback. The department heads often find ways to slip in key ideas that they want into the text. However, Kennedy was taking a bold new course with this speech that he knew went against the prevailing currents of American foreign policy. Indeed ever since then, no president has given an address like it.

Every president since World War II has come into office managing a giant, in-place bureaucracy, as described in the book National Security and Double Government, by Michael Glennon, with its own goals, objectives, and even operations. The Cuban exiles had already been training for their invasion of Cuba when Kennedy got in office and the CIA director told him that if he didn’t approve of the invasion he would have a “disposal problem” with them, meaning that word of what they had been training for would get out. The Defense Department had been planning for war and not peace. Air Force generals such as Curtis Lemay rather envisioned more nuclear missiles being built, not fewer.

So Kennedy had only a very small circle of close advisors help him write the address and then passed it on to his secretary of State and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the very last minute without even asking for their feedback. That is about the only way a president can present a major initiative that represents a departure from the national-security state and it is becoming an increasingly rare thing to occur.

Richard Nixon used this strategy often, especially with respect to China and expanding the Vietnam War into Laos. Presidents since then have done so less and less and I am doubtful Barack Obama has ever done so. It is a symptom of the fact that the size of government and the national-security bureaucracy itself has grown larger and more powerful and influential over the years.

Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Cohen both show how Kennedy’s words in these speeches were inspiring, but by focusing on them like a laser they do not show the larger political realities behind them and why such leadership seems unlikely today. In fact Kennedy’s civil-rights address was delivered in response to events and not as some grand personal initiative. And there were none announced in it. It took years of civil-rights agitation and chaos in the streets to make it happen. One wonders what kind of leadership we will see more of in the White House in the future. Over the past fifteen years we have seen foreign-policy wrecks in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan. Will the next president be able to redirect the nation’s energies in a better direction or simply continue to react to events? Judging by recent history the latter seems more likely. In that regard Kennedy’s “quest for peace” offers lessons for today that not even Sachs writes about.

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    Michael Swanson resides in rural Virginia. He received a Masters Degree in history from the University of Virginia and then dropped out of the college’s Ph.D. program to enter the business world. He ran a hedge fund from 2003 until 2006 and runs the website Wallstreetwindow.com.